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Four years is a measurement of time that America has used for centuries to indicate change. Presidential terms last four years; high school diplomas and college degrees typically take four years apiece, too. It’s not an arbitrary thing, either: It typically takes that much time from the declaration of something changing for it to actually change.
Meet Laura Jane Grace. Four years ago, the Against Me! frontwoman came out as transgender; 18 months later, she released the band’s sixth album, the fiery Transgender Dysphoria Blues, one which she began working on before her transition and helped document the struggles she was facing. It was an intensely personal record that took on a life of its own, connecting with thousands of new listeners drawn to Grace’s honesty and complexity while still pleasing Against Me!’s dedicated fanbase.
Now, four years after Grace’s public reintroduction, Against Me! is ready to release their new album, Shape Shift With Me, September 16 on Total Treble. While much has changed in the lives of Grace and her bandmates—guitarist James Bowman, bassist Inge Johansson and drummer Atom Willard—in that time period, it’s clear that those intervening years have done wonders for creativity.
“Everything with Shape Shift With Me has been really about keeping momentum going,” she says. “In between every tour we did for Transgender Dysphoria Blues, I would have a couple songs I had written and we would demo them. At the end of two years of touring, we had an album ready to record. Usually, you come off of touring for a record and you're back at square one. But this was so fully formed it felt like there was no choice but to go ahead and record the songs.”
Shape Shift With Me has the distinction of the first album Grace has written truly from the heart, with no metaphorical cloaks cast over the lyrics. It’s an album about love, that deceptively complex emotion we all struggle with yet has somehow eluded most of Grace’s songwriting for the past 20 years.
“Tons of people have written about love. But while love is cliché, it’s infinitely relevant. For me, having always been in a punk band that was expected to be political, I never felt like I had that option to write about feelings in that way. That’s what I ended up being drawn to this time. It’s writing in a way I thought I could never write before, and not giving a shit about expectations.”
As such, Shape Shift With Me is a loose concept album about traveling the world and falling in and out of love, with Grace serving as the narrator. But even though she was opening herself up to new songwriting topics, she knew what her mission was from the start.
“Is there a record that is about relationships from a trans perspective?” she asks rhetorically. “There needs to be more records about trans rights and everything like that, but feeling like I already did that, I wanted to move on to write commentary on living from a trans perspective. I wanted to write the transgender response to the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main St., Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville and the Streets’ A Grand Don’t Come For Free. All those records are relationship records. There’s been an infinite amount of records talking about what love means from a cisgender perspective. I wanted to present the trans perspective on sex, love and heartbreak.”
With Grace’s new motivation came a new outlook on the band, as well. Previous albums found the songwriting process to be a largely solitary experience, but she embraced the spirit of collaboration for Shape Shift With Me—so much so that when Cody Votolato of the Blood Brothers sent her some demos of songs he was working on for another project, she became inspired and ended up co-writing “Boyfriend” and “Norse Truth,” two of the album’s most memorable tracks, with him.
“It was just about opening up to whatever comes my way karmically,” Grace says. “Whatever everyone in the band is willing to offer, I just wanted to be open to it. I didn’t want it to be like what it was in the past where it may have felt closed. I want it to be different.”
In a career already full of classic punk records, Shape Shift With Me feels like the definitive Against Me! album—it’s poppy and catchy (“Rebecca,” “Suicide Bomber”), aggressive and in-your-face (“ProVision L-3,” “Dead Rats”), sentimental and longing (“Crash,” “All This And More”). Moreover, it’s the culmination of four years of existence as Laura Jane Grace—there’s no going back now, so she might as well embrace it.
“While I’ve always wanted the moon and the stars, I have a certain amount of humbleness,” she admits. “I just want to play shows and make records and write songs. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do. Of course I always want the biggest and best things for those shows and records and songs, but when it comes down to it, I just love doing it. I have no other ambitions or career goals.
“David Bowie put out 27 full-lengths. Prince put out 39 full-lengths,” Grace remarks. “That is so inspiring to me—working, creating art, creating records and let everyone else sort it out. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do and that’s what I will keep on doing.”
Los Angeles-based sister duo Jennifer and Jessie Clavin knew that things were going to be different for their band Bleached sophomore LP Welcome The Worms. Not only had they managed to charm world renowned producer and engineer, Joe Chiccarelli (Morrissey, The Strokes, Elton John) to join the sisters and their bassist Micayla Grace in the studio, but Jen and Jessie had been crawling out of their own personal dramas. Jessie was evicted from her house and scrambling, while Jen ended a torrid, unhealthy romance. While emotionally spinning, she dove head first into music. She struggled and escaped the pressures with drinking and partying, sometimes to excess, feeling like she was losing herself altogether.
“I was a loose canon,” the commanding front woman says. “I was losing serious control of my personal and creative life. I was falling apart, trying to escape. I felt like Bleached was the only thing I actually cared about.”
The 10-song LP was born out of triple the amount of demos. Sometimes the three girls spent time writing at a remote house in Joshua Tree away from the seemingly destructive city (a first since bassist Micayla had never contributed to songwriting on previous releases). Other times Jen and Jessie worked alone, just like when they were teenaged punk brats playing in their parent’s San Fernando Valley garage imitating their heroes The Slits, Black Flag and Minor Threat.
In the studio, Chiccarelli and co-producer Carlos de la Garza (Paramore, YACHT) helped the band perfect their fervent songs into fearlessly big pop melodies. They drew inspiration from the iconic hits of everyone from Fleetwood Mac to Heart to Roy Ayers. They focused on pre-production and challenged the songs. Jessie took her usual approach to guitar overdubs and leads (her favorite duty in a recording session). “I just let my fingers play and kind of surprise me,” she smirks. Still remaining to keep the band’s origin of cheeky, California-punk in the forefront, Welcome The Worms became a smarter, heavier, emotionally deeper Bleached.
“Before we even knew we were working together, I remember Joe saying, you can’t lose these melodies, no matter how raw the music gets,” Jen explains. She penned demos on an acoustic guitar and focused. “If I was happy [with the songs] in [their] rawest form, then I knew it would be even better after going through production.”
“I’ve become a more confident musician,” adds Jessie. “I wanted to be open-minded to this record and try new things we hadn’t done before. I felt such a great amount of respect working with the people we did on this record, feeling really free to do what I wanted to do, and making it a Bleached world.”
Welcome The Worms is an ambitious rock record with a new found pop refinement that somehow still feels like the Shangri-Las on speed, driven forward in a wind of pot and petals, a wall of guitars in the back seat. “Keep on Keepin’ On” is a hypnotic opening anthem that spins like a kaleidoscope, while “Sleepwalking” and “Trying To Lose Myself Again” invoke the struggle of floating through life on autopilot. The drums are instinctual, while the bass bounces like a rubber ball over the lyrics on a karaoke screen. “Sour Candy” is a stand-out hit so effortless and catchy it sticks in your head for days. Synth is only brought in as a thickening agent, just like the harmonies. “Chemical Air” and “I’m All Over The Place (Mystic Mama)” toy with pop sensibilities, while “Desolate Town” shows Jen getting weird on the verses before a Cobain-like chorus.
Throughout the record, Bleached paints a frivolous picture of Los Angeles: the life of eye-rolling caused by dating men in bands, dirty Sunset Boulevard and futile drunken nights in a starstruck hole that made everyone from Charles Manson to Darby Crash to Marilyn Monroe stare up at the Hollywood sign for direction. Although a typical theme of ruined romance floats through the album, the real power is in Jen figuring out herself through lyrics so straight, identifiable and honest. This was a first for the girl who safely hid behind a cheeky misdemeanor. She did a lot of messing up and even more digging into herself.
“Sometimes [writing this album] made me hate myself and sometimes it made me love myself,” she admits. “But being aware of how I felt is what I wanted.” It became clear that Jen had to embrace the good with the horrible and learn to overcome it all through music.
One evening, high on psychedelics and up all night, Jen and a friend passed a freaky couple at Echo Park Lake peddling homemade religious pamphlets. “One page was a bunch of cut and paste sentences with images. I’m always really intrigued by those crazy DIY religious books. It all was so perfect at that moment [because] it was about embracing the dark side of life instead of pretending it isn’t there because it’s all beautiful and I wouldn’t give any of it up for anything.” Welcome The Worms was sprawled across the tripped out pamphlet. The phrase stuck.
“We don’t want perfection because it’s boring,” she continues. “We want to make music that’s as real as life.”
The Dirty Nil play rock and roll. Loud, distorted, and out of control, they play like it’s a fever they’re trying to sweat out. Reveling in the din of distorted guitars, pounding drums, and desperately howled vocals, the Hamilton Ontario three-piece makes music for turntables and hi-fi’s - music for dive bars and house parties - for beer drinking and joint smoking - for road trips and barbecues - for fighting and yelling and shouting and singing and screaming and howling - for sweating and bleeding - trying and failing and trying again anyways. Gravel-in-your guts, spit-in-your-eye, staggering, bloodthirsty rock and roll. They have two 7"s available that capture the snarl and destructive noise they create. The Dirty Nil play rock and roll - cause they couldn’t do a damn thing else if they tried.